Brave New Worlds
Books have the potential to transform society, at the least creating change on an individual level as readers gain empathy for or even embrace the different. Ursula Le Guin reminds us, “Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”[i]
My 25 year involvement with the cinematic belies my life-long love affair with the written word. By my teens, I was a voracious reader, sneaking science fiction and fantasy novels into my classes and reading while my teachers lectured. Book after book, I was caught up in the storyline, more often than not of a male protagonist following some variation of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. However, I was also fascinated by the strange worlds created by the author. My family couldn’t afford to travel much when I was growing up, but through my books I traveled across space and time, encountering exotic realms, and alien cultures.
My exposure to science fiction and fantasy bolstered the mores of my conservative family upbringing— for example, the libertarian views expounded in Robert A. Heinlein’s novels. However, this exposure also subverted my understanding of what should be possible, most notably through Heinlein’s exploration of gender and family systems in his later books. It was in these imaginary worlds where I discovered alternate models to our existing society, and forms of identity that would be considered suspect at best in my family and religious community.
While I have some favorite books that I go back to from time to time, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” and spiritual reading that continues to give me guidance and inspiration (material for another blog), there are two novels that have haunted me over the years. These two works stay with me, not because of the entertainment they provided me, but because of their provocative ideas that gestated in my psyche over the years, even when the details of the story lines were forgotten. Those two books are Ursula Le Guin’s award winning “The Left Hand of Darkness” and Robert Heinlein’s “I Will Fear No Evil.”
Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” is set in the future, in a galaxy with a federation of human worlds. An envoy travels to a distant planet on the outskirts of this federation to extend an invitation to the native inhabitants to join. They are hermaphrodites, living asexually, yet able to take on the sexual characteristics of male or female depending on their particular circumstances and desires. As a young adolescent, I found this fluidity of sex, sexuality, and gender both disturbing and intriguing.
A few years later, I encountered Heinlein’s “I Will Fear No Evil.” This is not one of his acclaimed novels, however, the story concept is fascinating. A dying billionaire in a dystopic urban future has his brain placed into the body of a beautiful young woman. For some reason, her mind and psyche persists in the body and she is able to mentor his gender transition. Having a male protagonist learn how to be/perform as a woman, gave me permission to journey with him. Being able to identify with a character embodied as female, and learning the stereotypical feminine flirtation and seduction of men was tantalizing.
When I was reading these novels, in the late 60s and early 70s, I identified as straight, most likely because of my Catholic upbringing, family system, and the existing cultural constraints. The alternative ways that sexuality could be expressed described in these books was interesting but not something that directly addressed me; I filed them away as speculative fantasies. It was only years later when I arrived in a place in my life where I felt safe (ironically as a member of the Jesuit Order), that the subversively queer feelings these narratives evoked became conscious desires.
In the 20th century, words inspired a generation, helping to bring about a sea change in how queer lives are understood and treated. While fiction helped shape my worldview, scholarly works gave me the tools to analyze my experience and deepen my cultural understanding. Feminist scholars like Judith Butler broke opened understandings of gender, offering a theory of performativity to counter essentialist notions of masculine and feminine. And queer scholars such as Richard Dyer pushed the academy into different ways of thinking and into socially disruptive areas, where the pursuit of knowledge challenges current understanding and works towards the transformation of society. While technology thrusts us into a “Brave New World,” critical scholars advance our body of knowledge in ways that give us new insights and frameworks of understanding into what it is to be human. Together with writers of fiction (and other artists) they provide us a greater freedom of expression, and, ultimately, ways of seeing how a world may be more just and inclusive.
[i] Speech in Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin, November 19, 2014
Daniel Cutrara, a former Jesuit priest, has taught in the film programmes at Loyola Marymount and Arizona State. In his recent book, “Wicked Cinema: Sex and Religion on Screen” (University of Texas Press, 2014), he explores the representation of cultural forces in conflict.
The image at the beginning of this post is a theatre lobby card for the film Destination Moon based on a book by Robert Heinlein. It was posted on Flickr using a creative commons licence by Mark Bult.